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[Feature] [20 Must-know GEI] 4. Is what I eat related to climate change?

by Eco Generation | 01-07-2016 09:46 Comments 5 recommendations 0

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4. Is what I eat related to climate change?

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     Have you thought about how food you eat ends up on your table? Let's talk about one of your favorite food. What is it made from? Where does each ingredient come from? How are they transported? Where do the rest of the ingredients or food waste eventually go?
     Like other things, food also goes through a lot of processes before you get it. This consists of very complex stages, but we can simplify the life of food into 4 steps:  production-distribution-cooking-disposal. In all the steps, energy is used and carbon dioxide is emitted into the air. Let's look at the life of a hamburger, a food that many enjoy.  

1. The life of a hamburger

(1) Production.
     Hamburgers are made with bread, meat patties (the main ingredient), and various vegetables. Where is each ingredient grown? Flour, the main ingredient of bread, comes from wheat fields in the US and Australia. Meat patties are made from beef from stock farms in Australia or South America. Wheat fields and stock farms are created by destroying existing nature, especially tropical forests. Destroying tropical forests means fewer trees, which results in emission of carbon dioxide that had been stored in or absorbed by trees. 
     Among these, beef production takes the most proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to producing the same amount of wheat, beef generates 40 times more greenhouse gases on average. Why? Unlike vegetables, which require only sunlight and water, 'beef' comes from slaughtered cows that have eaten crops. In nature, cows eat grass, but these days they are fed crops to produce tender meat with a bit of fat in it. Therefore, if we ate 'beef fed with crops,' we would consume many more crops than if we ate crops directly. In this way, higher trophic levels of consumers need more energy in a food chain, which is called the 'energy pyramid.' 
     Lastly, let's talk about vegetables. Most vegetables are produced domestically. In order to get fresh vegetables even in cold weather, they are grown in vinyl-covered greenhouses where energy is required to maintain inside temperatures.

(2) Distribution.
     Wheat and cows grown and raised in the US, Australia, and South America are turned into flour and beef, respectively, and then transported to fast food restaurants around the world. They are shipped across the ocean, in which most energy is provided by fossil fuels, the cause of greenhouse gases. In order to find out how much carbon dioxide is emitted during the distribution process, a British environmentalist suggested the concept of 'food miles (shipment weight x the distance food travels from the location where it is grown to the location where it is consumed).' The higher the shipment weight or the longer the distance, the more the food miles. As such, flour and beef produced in foreign countries have more food miles compared to those produced at home. In addition, cold storage facilities are used to maintain food products freshness when it takes a longer time in transporting or selling, which consumes energy as well. Vegetables or beef in hamburgers are always the same during the four seasons. Accordingly, cold storage facilities and energy are required to keep such ingredients.

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(3) Cooking and Disposal.
     Wheat and beef that has arrived in your country will become 'hamburger bread' and 'beef patties.' For baking the bread and shaping the beef into 'patties,' cooking equipment is operated, which consumes energy as well. Already-processed ingredients are cooked again at hamburger restaurants to become 'hamburgers' by grilling meat and heating bread, ovens consume energy again. After you throw away leftovers and food packages, they are moved to waste treatment plants. Methane is generated during the process of waste decomposition, and carbon dioxide when disposed packaged are landfilled or incinerated. 

2. How can you reduce impacts of food on climate change?

     Energy is spent not only before food is consumed but also later, which generates greenhouse gases. People have recognized that all kinds of food can have an influence on climate change as well as the environment as in the life of a hamburger, and have tried to come up with various methods to reduce them. Here are three of the methods:   
     First, local food with lower food miles. Local food is locally produced and consumed food in the region. That is, consuming domestically produced wheat or rice instead of imported flour. By doing so, the transportation distance is reduced, small farmers are revived and consumers can have fresher food than that from distant regions. This movement has naturally led to creation of local-unit consumer cooperatives and local food union markets. As for foreign countries with vast regions, reducing food transportation distance is called 'the 100-Mile Diet.'
     Second, recently more urban people are growing their own vegetables in veggie patches, apartment rooftops or verandas. Although you can't produce all the food you eat, you can lower the transport distances of food by growing some of your food. 
     Third, buying seasonal food. By eating seasonally, you can reduce energy consumption on not only vinyl-covered greenhouses but also cold storage facilities even crops grown in bare ground, if they are not seasonal food, should be kept in cold storage facilities to market them during all four seasons. As for vegetarians, they can reduce the impact on climate change by consuming food in lower trophic levels of the energy pyramid. Cutting down on your meat consumption will benefit your health as well as the environment.
     Fourth, purchasing as much food with a 'carbon label' as possible, which considers the whole process of food consumption. You can reduce carbon emissions by consuming low-carbon products that emit relatively less carbon. 'Carbon labels' show how much carbon dioxide has emitted during the food production process. As for hamburgers, Max Burgers in Sweden was the first to post 'carbon labels.' Recently, 'carbon labels' are attached to various products in many countries. 
     Lastly, cooking and purchasing only the amount you can eat so as not to leave food. By reducing leftover food, you can reduce energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions not only during the food waste treatment process but also while disposed food wastes are processed or decomposed.
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     There are many things we can practice to decrease food miles in our daily life. Let's think about what we can do to lower our impact on the environment.
- Joining consumer cooperatives or using local food union markets.
- Looking for food with carbon labels.
- Buying ingredients with lower carbon footprints as in seasonal food.
- Cooking only the amount you can eat.
- Reducing food waste when cooking.
- Having only the amount you can eat at the school cafeteria.
- Eating mostly plants.
- Growing your own cherry tomatoes or lettuce in your apartment veranda or rooftop. 


Food, Globalization and Sustainability. 
Peter Oosterveer and David A. Sonnenfield.(2012)Published by Routledge.

Script by : Prof. Yoon, Sun-jin's Environment & Energy Lab
                Seoul National University
Illustration by : Kim, Jeong-kyeom


  • Anthony Emecheta says :
    I very much relate with the part of cooking the amount you would eat. Restaurants are usually the prime sources of food wastage and their activities would need to be checked.
    Posted 19-07-2016 16:57

  • says :
    This the best post i ever read on this platform. well done!!!!
    Posted 15-07-2016 22:04

  • Anishka Jha says :
    That is some really interesting information!
    Posted 12-07-2016 23:43

  • says :
    Ccongrats, Kristi. I like the information
    Posted 08-07-2016 18:15

  • says :
    WOW! This was my new information. THANK YOU FOR POSTING!
    Posted 07-07-2016 13:10

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